Is the Coronavirus the New Black Plague?

An examination of 2,500 years of epidemics

Aaron Schnoor
Mar 5, 2020 · 6 min read
Image by the CDC on Unsplash

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread around the globe, stirring worries in every country that a global pandemic is on the horizon. As I write this, over 3,250 deaths have been reported, with 95,000 reported cases worldwide.

Yes, it’s scary. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives just approved $8.3 billion of emergency aid to respond to the spreading virus, signaling a belief that the exponential growth of the disease is possible, if not immediately imminent.

It begs the question: is this our civilization’s Black Plague?

Looking at the history of epidemics offers a unique perspective on the coronavirus. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

When you look at the events of the past, you see that the current coronavirus hardly compares to the size and scale of earlier pandemics. Unmentioned in the above list are outbreaks of smallpox, measles, typhus, cholera, HIV/AIDs, scarlet fever, yellow fever, and others — all of which killed thousands, in some cases millions, of people.

Here’s a graphic that may help to understand the worst pandemics in world history:

Courtesy of reddit.com

As this suggests, humans have faced health epidemics for thousands of years. The term epidemic comes from the Greek word epi (on) and demos (people), and it was initially used by the Greek author Homer. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “At that time, epidemic was the name given to a collection of clinical syndromes, such as coughs or diarrheas, occurring and propagating in a given period at a given location. Over centuries, the form and meaning of the term have changed. Successive epidemics of plague in the Middle Ages contributed to the definition of an epidemic as the propagation of a single, well-defined disease.”

Take another look at the first item on the graphic. The Black Death (bubonic plague) is estimated “to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe’s population,” a statistic that has been verified by researchers and historians. Suzanne Alchon, the author of A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective, wrote that “the ‘Black Death,’ as it came to be known, has occupied a central place in the collective memories of [global] populations for the past six centuries.”

The Black Death wreaked havoc across the globe, taking victims regardless of age, gender, health, or financial status. It terrorized cities, towns, and villages, inciting fear and leaving areas with only a small number of survivors.

One of those survivors was the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the Black Death when it struck the city of Florence in 1348 AD. After the plague passed, Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a fictional story about a handful of men and women enduring a similar disease. Boccaccio’s writing still stands as a testament to the tragedy of the bubonic plague.

The author wrote, “…Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety.”

Does that sound familiar? Centuries later, the human tendency to avoid — or ignore — the sick has not changed. Even with their limited knowledge of medicine, Europeans witnessing the Black Plague understood the importance of avoiding those tainted by the disease.

Boccaccio goes on to write:

“One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbour troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.”

Thankfully, we have not descended into that level of terror with the threatening spread of the coronavirus. But it was not that long ago that Americans faced a situation very similar to that of the Black Plague.

In March of 1918, reports emerged of influenza-stricken soldiers in Kansas. The soldiers, it appears, contracted the disease while fighting abroad.

At first it was just 100 soldiers. Then it grew to 500. The summer months passed by with limited spreading of the disease. Americans continued with their daily routines, oblivious to the threat within the country.

Then, in September — 14,000 cases are reported at a U.S. Army training camp near Boston. October — hundreds of thousands of Americans contract the virus, resulting in 195,000 deaths in that month alone. The disease spread from Boston down the eastern seaboard, striking Washington D.C., Atlanta, and other cities.

In Atlanta, the city temporarily shut down all activities to stop the spread of the virus. After 2,000 cases were reported in early October, all churches, schools, and theaters were closed for the entire month. “Public Gathering Places Closed by City Council for Two Months,” the headline of the Atlanta Constitution read on October 8, 1918.

William H. Sardo was just six years old when the influenza epidemic ravaged the United States. Like many other children, he understood the terrible power of the disease that weighed upon the nation. Unlike many other children, however, Sardo was fortunate enough to survive.

In a 2006 interview with NBC, Sardo recalled the disappearance of his friends and classmates. “They disappeared from the face of the earth,” Sardo said.

“It changed a lot of society,” Sardo went on to state. “We became more individualistic.”

Compare that statement to that of Giovanni Boccaccio, who stated 600 years earlier that “One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbour troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other.” The similarity in those two statements is a chilling reminder of the human tendancy to avoid thoughts of morality. It also reminds us of the epidemics that have threatened humans since the beginning of time and of our inability to overcome such diseases.

And here we now are, with the coronavirus.

Should we be worried? Not beyond any reasonable fear that would cause us to exercise caution. We now have a greater understanding of disease and preventative medicine than we have ever had before. We have systems in place to combat global pandemics, and we have the ability to find cures through research. We are stronger in all ways than we have ever been before.

In addition, we have responded to the coronavirus with proactive efficiency, putting safeguards in place to eliminate the disease as much as possible. We are on high alert, ready to combat any further spreading that occurs within the United States.

As I stated earlier: is it scary? Yes, but that is an understandable reaction, especially given the knowledge that epidemics have caused indescribable harm in the past.

Is it the next Black Plague? No, it is not.

Despite our fear, perspective is key. Looking at the events of the Black Death and influenza epidemic helps us to understand what has occurred in the past and how humans reacted to those tragedies. Using that perspective, we can decide how we will choose to react to the coronavirus.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share…

Aaron Schnoor

Written by

Occasional Writer, Full-Time Student at Campbell University, and Editor of Exploring Economics

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Aaron Schnoor

Written by

Occasional Writer, Full-Time Student at Campbell University, and Editor of Exploring Economics

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store